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Selling Foreign Rights in Our Digital Age

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by Thomas Woll —

(Originally published in IBPA’s Independent.)

Has selling foreign rights changed in today’s digital world? The answer is yes—and no. Some changes have made it easier for publishers to handle foreign rights internally. And some actions have stayed the same, including the steps you need to take to achieve success.

Nine Tried and True Tactics

As in the past, selling foreign rights is a fairly straightforward process that most small and independent publishers can handle on their own or with the help of a foreign rights agent.

You need to:

1. Be sure you own the rights you intend to sell. Check your contract with the author and/or the agent from whom you bought the book. Are your publishing rights restricted to the United States? Do you own or control e-book and/or other digital rights? You can’t sell what you don’t own, so don’t try.

2. Position your book. Define what the book is and how it differs from all those comparable books in the market that are published by others. In short, provide a handle for the book and explain the key selling points that make your book unique.

3. Identify the target publishers within each country that seem appropriate for the book. Focus on those publishers who are publishing in the book’s subject area. Find the ones in each country in which you want to sell rights that have an affinity with your program and/or with your individual book, and get the name of the appropriate person to approach at each company (in publishing houses, it’s usually the editorial director). You can’t sell gardening books to companies that publish stamp-collecting books, so don’t waste your time trying.

4. Approach potential rights buyers in English-language countries first. The reason for this is twofold: (a) Your book can be used without being translated by the purchasing publisher, so the process is easier for all involved; and (b) you get a chance to learn about the rights-sales process in your native language before you have to work your way through it with people whose native language is not English.

5. Send your rights list and/or the manuscript, proposal, or finished book that you’re trying to sell to each person and company you have targeted. You can do this via email or snail mail; email is totally acceptable. You can also send a link to your Web site if the submission materials are fully posted there (most publishers make their catalogs available on their sites, but most don’t provide all the materials needed for full rights consideration that way).

6. Follow up by email within a couple of weeks. Don’t let the submission languish. Try to get either a yes or no response in a timely way.

7. If there’s interest in your book, negotiate the deal, focusing particularly on:

Contract source. Try to use your contract rather than the foreign publisher’s. The terms will be more acceptable to U.S. courts, if legal action becomes necessary.

Territory. Limit the territory (usually expressed in terms of a country) as much you can to preserve your right to sell in as many places as possible.

Language. Restrict your language sales as much as possible for the same reason.

Currency. Specify that payments should be in U.S. dollars and sent via wire transfer to your bank account.

Term of contract. A normal term for foreign rights is three to five years, but you can negotiate for other periods if they are preferable for some reason. Technically, of course, a digital book never goes out of print, so a rights buyer might be able to make it available forever unless the seller imposes sales restrictions—which I highly recommend.

Advance amount and royalty rates. Don’t be greedy. Most foreign rights sell for modest amounts. Most books aren’t bestsellers! Any figure between $1,500 and $15,000 would be considered normal.

Payment schedules for advances and royalties. Get as much up-front as possible (the whole amount would be best) but no less than one-half on signing and one-half on publication of the foreign edition.

The warranty clause. Be sure that the clause protects you in relation to any changes the foreign publisher might make to the text in its translation, especially if the publisher is adding any new content to your book.

The assignment clause. Be sure that the agreement can be assigned to your heirs, successors, or anyone who buys your company.

8. Agree on the final contract.

9. Get the agreement signed in ink. While faxes are legally recognized today, as are some email signatures, it’s always helpful to have the actual signed document in your files, just in case.

What’s New

So what is different about selling foreign rights in the digital era?

Speed. Transactions can obviously be much quicker. Sending materials by email beats sending by snail mail every time.

Costs. Postage costs mount up when you send physical materials to publishers around the globe, but they vanish when what you send is in digital form.

Options. In addition to traditional hardcover and paperback rights, you can sell e-book rights in various formats, rights to chunks of information such as chapters, rights to enhanced digital editions, and more.

Buyers. The names on your prospect list don’t all have to be other publishers. For instance, a blogger we represent attracts a tightly defined interest group to her site and has decided to republish books for this specialized audience that have been out of print for a long time. She is now negotiating rights deals with the publishers of those books.

Territories. Defining digital rights territories and enforcing territorial restrictions can be difficult, since various online vendors routinely sell print and e-books to people throughout the world and have little regard for—and often little control over—restrictions involving countries and languages that appear in publishing contracts.

DRM. Digital rights management, which has fairly well-known advantages and disadvantages, is relatively easy to circumvent in the worldwide marketplace. This means that many digital titles are open to piracy and misappropriation—as are print books.

Promising Prospect

For best results in selling foreign rights, whether print or digital, you need to get involved, understand your product, make contact with your peer publishers abroad, and follow up consistently.

While the digital age brings some new opportunities, the core process of selling foreign rights is the same as it’s been for a long time. And since new digital products are valuable in themselves and often also valuable in relation to print products, revenues from new kinds of rights sales can only benefit publishers, both in the short term and in the long term.

About the Author:

Thomas WollThomas Woll, president of Cross River Publishing Consultants, Inc., has more than 30 years of publishing experience at senior management levels. CRPC is a full-service management consulting company focused solely on media for publishers small and large, profit and not-for-profit. The company has been helping publishers with business needs for more than 20 years. Contact: TWoll@pubconsultants.com.

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